To Help Their Fishing Industry Compete, Latin America’s Leaders Must Push World Trade Organization Members to End Harmful Subsidies

Foreign government payments to distant-water fleets are hurting fisheries throughout the region

Fishing boat laden with fish heading back to home port
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Fishing is central to Latin America’s economy—and, for many who live there, a way of life. But this centuries-old industry is also at risk.

The region produces 21.5 million metric tons of fish each year—one-quarter of the globe’s annual production, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. And approximately 2.3 million Latin Americans are involved in fishing.

But the industry is losing out to aggressive foreign fleets—primarily from Europe and Asia—that are fishing within Latin American exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the areas just outside them. Unlike domestic vessels, these fleets tend to benefit from substantial funding from their home governments that enables them to fish outside their own countries’ waters. These harmful, capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies pay for fuel and other expenses, artificially lowering the cost of fishing and enabling fleets to fish in areas where it would otherwise be unprofitable.

After more than two decades of talks, the World Trade Organization’s 164 member governments are closer than ever to agreeing on a new globally binding treaty that could curb the damaging subsidies that enable fleets to fish both within other countries’ waters and on the high seas. Fishing on the high seas—on the fringes of another nation’s waters—can hurt a country’s fisheries in part because it allows foreign vessels to pick off migratory species, such as tuna or billfish, before they enter the EEZ.

As trade ministers prepare to gather in Geneva for a WTO ministerial conference that begins June 12, Latin America’s leaders should push for a fisheries subsidies agreement that would help their domestic fishers better compete with foreign fleets by insisting that the agreement eliminate all capacity-enhancing subsidies that prop up so-called distant-water fishing and allow more fishing than the market would otherwise support.

Each year, governments around the world hand out $22 billion in harmful fisheries subsidies, with nearly two-thirds coming from just six countries and the European Union. About one-third of that, or $7.2 billion, goes toward helping countries fish in other nations’ EEZs and in the high seas just beyond those territorial waters, according to a new research-based tool developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The rise in distant-water fishing is driven by a sad reality: Having already depleted fish populations in their own waters, big fishing nations are looking elsewhere to fill their nets. Ecuador’s Galapagos islands hit the headlines last summer when researchers discovered that in just one month, 300 Chinese vessels collectively spent 73,000 hours fishing just outside the EEZ surrounding the Galapagos.

The tool shows that 180 boats from just four places—China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Spain—spent a collective 84,000 fishing hours in Argentina’s EEZ in 2018. That’s the equivalent of 9.6 years on the water. And that effort was fueled by an estimated $92 million in harmful subsidies.

Other research shows similar activity regionwide, not only in Latin American EEZs but also just beyond them. For example, in 2018, nearly 600 vessels were stationed just outside the national waters of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, powered by an estimated $515 million in harmful subsidies from—once again—China, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan. And just outside the EEZs of Peru and Chile, a 570-boat distant-water fleet is powered by an estimated $630 million in subsidies. The situation is distressingly similar throughout the region.

Encouragingly, Latin American leaders have long supported curbing distant-water subsidies: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay co-sponsored a 2019 WTO proposal to ban such subsidies, and in July, the Uruguayan foreign affairs minister stated that such a ban would have “the greatest potential to make a significant impact on the state of the oceans and the livelihoods of fishing communities.”

But large fishing nations are seeking to water down the language of the potential WTO agreement so they can continue taking fish from other countries’ waters. That’s why Latin American trade ministers must continue to press for elimination of distant-water subsidies: to help ensure that fish from their waters land mostly on their vessels, giving a competitive edge back to Latin American fishers and helping to sustain a vital industry, and way of life, throughout the region.

Ernesto Fernández Monge works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ reducing harmful fisheries subsidies project. He previously worked in Costa Rica’s WTO mission in Geneva.

This piece was originally published in La Nacion, El Tiempo, and El Nacional in April 2022.

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